Why most active ingredients don’t work

I was listening to one of my favorite skeptical podcasts, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and they were talking about Deer Antler Spray.  Apparently, a player in the Super Bowl was rumored to have used the stuff to increase the speed at which he would heal from an injury.  The ingredient was applied topically and somehow was supposed to help him heal faster.  There is enough belief in it that the NFL has banned the substance.  But in true Skeptics Guide fashion, one of the hosts looked into the research and discovered that there really is no proven benefit to the use of deer antler spray.  The studies of the active ingredient showed some effect in lab tests but not in human trials.

This reminded me of most new anti-aging ingredients used in cosmetics.

Anti-aging cosmetic technology development

First, a scientist makes a discovery about how an ingredient affects the growth of skin cells in a lab.  It may speed growth, increase collagen production, increase elastin production, or have some other presumably positive effect.  This could be an accidental discovery (usually) or done on purpose.

Next, the scientist makes a presentation to the marketing group and spins an anti-aging story.  Marketing groups are constantly on the look-out for new anti-aging ingredients and R&D departments are keen to deliver something.

After that, the marketing group runs with the technology spinning stories about the new product, and putting them in product briefs that get read to consumers in focus groups.  In the meantime, the scientists try to incorporate the technology into a cream or lotion or whatever other product the marketing group wants to launch.  They also continue the process of claims testing.

When the market research and marketing group strike on a product story that resonates with consumers, they move ahead.  They hope that the scientists can demonstrate the effectiveness of the ingredient in a cream but it’s not really required.  The proof of effectiveness from the lab testing is enough to support most cosmetic claims.

What it means

So, what does this mean?

While there are some completely unsupported anti-aging ingredients, most of the technology in anti-aging cosmetics actually have some basis for functionality.  In theory, they can work…at least in the lab.

The reality is that most any cosmetic active ingredient that will affect skin cells is not likely to work.  There is a big difference between affecting skin cells in a lab than skin cells located in the body below the epidermis.  Most any active ingredient is too big to penetrate the epidermis.  And if an ingredient cannot penetrate, it cannot work.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that most anti-aging ingredients do not work.  They suffer from the same problem as topically applied Deer Antler spray.  No penetration…no effect.

On the plus side, there is benefit to moisturizing skin and this is what nearly all anti-aging cosmetics do.  Also, if a cosmetic was actually able to cause collagen production to increase or interfere with the skin cell metabolism that would make it a drug and would be illegal to sell as a cosmetic in the US.

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